Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Barack-o-Lanterns



created by Will and Peter Hardy

Beechen Cliff Revisted

In January 2007, our family visited Bath, England, where Jane Austen lived for several years in the first decade of the eighteenth century, and which provided an important setting for her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. One of the things we did on that visit was to climb the steep steps up to Beechen Cliff, where Catherine Morland walks with Henry Tilney and his sister in chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey. I blogged about that walk on my Sabbatical Blog. In a post that went up yesterday, Ms. Place used one of my photographs from that visit on her Jane Austen's World blog to illustrate her rich and informative essay, "Beechen Cliff, the Arts, and Natural Surroundings."

Thanks to Ms. Place for her consideration in asking for permission to use the photograph.

The Book of Judges

Then the Lord raised up judges...
—Judges 2:16


Most years, I confess, I go into the voting booth entirely unprepared to decide between candidates for seats on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Under the Minnesota state constitution, justices are chosen by voters, unless a vacancy occurs between general elections, in which case a provisional appointment is made by the governor. This year, Minnesota voters will be asked to fill two seats on the Supreme Court, and again the names on the ballot will be unfamiliar to most people.

The first race pits incumbent Paul Anderson against challenger Tim Tingelstad. Tingelstad's campaign website reveals him to be an extreme fundamentalist Christian who argues against the separation of church and state, claiming that "the Church must return to its vital role of supporting and influencing the state." This, for example, is what Tingelstad says about Christianity and the public schools:
The Word of God was originally the cornerstone of this Nation’s public education system. The Bible is not an unconstitutional book. Instead, God’s Word is the only solid basis upon which to teach morality. When we removed the Bible from the public education of our children, we did not remove religion, we merely replaced the religious belief in the living God with a religious belief in the god of materialism and chance.
Tingelstad clearly believes that the Bible, not evolution, should be taught in public schools, and would undoubtedly bring that belief to the judicial bench. He says: "God's Word is the Light of Truth. As God's Word has been removed from our public lives, the resulting darkness has led to our present social disorder and political divisions. The correction of these problems will only begin when the Light of Truth is returned to our land's highest hills, the Supreme Courts."

This man should be kept at a safe distance from public office.

The other Supreme Court race is between incumbent Lorie Skjerven Gildea and challenger Deborah Hedlund. The Twin Cities chapter of the League of Young Voters originally endorsed Hedlund as a reaction against the conservative Pawlenty-appointee Gildea—then retracted their endorsement when they discovered that Hedlund was "a rabid right-wing Christian homophobe."

There are important issues, and occasionally some unpleasant surprises, lurking at the bottom of the ballot. It's best to come prepared.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Reading Journal: "A Conspiracy of Paper"

David Liss, A Conspiracy of Paper. Random House 2000. There is one used copy of this book available at Monkey See, Monkey Read in Northfield.

"We're storytellers, not scholars," author Kathy Lynn Emerson writes in her book How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries. But David Liss is both: a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature and a skillful storyteller. He was, he says in an historical note at the end of his first novel, a doctoral student at Columbia University, researching "the ways in which eighteenth-century Britons imagined themselves through their money." His research led him to write A Conspiracy of Paper, a mystery novel set in the coffeehouses of London's Exchange Alley, which formed the first stock market in the English-speaking world.

The year is 1719, and the powerful South Sea Company, rival of the equally powerful Bank of England, is poised to assume the lion's share of the national debt in return for stock in the company. In the midst of this frenzy of financial speculation, ex-boxer and thief-taker Benjamin Weaver is called upon to investigate the suspicious death of a Jewish stock-jobber: his own father, from whom he has been estranged for many years.

Liss does many things well. He creates a compelling protagonist in Benjamin Weaver, a man of action and conscience, the son of Jewish immigrants who has struggled to make a place for himself amid the pitfalls and prejudices of English society. Liss expertly recreates eighteenth-century London, its powdered wigs and its cesspools, without calling attention to his scholarship. The world of the novel seems lived in, not researched. Liss skillfully invests Weaver, his narrator, with a style that gives the flavor of eighteenth-century English without becoming "inhospitable or circuitous." Finally, Liss does a fine job of explaining the intricacies of eighteenth-century finance without shifting back into the character of doctoral student.

At the heart of the mystery is a fundamental tension in eighteenth-century finance: the notion that real value (i.e., gold and silver) has been replaced by "the promise of value" (i.e., paper money and stock certificates). This was a novel situation in the 1700s, and one that made most people uncomfortable. Instead of residing in gold and silver, value resides in the banks and corporations, and the men behind them, who are powerful enough to guarantee the promissory value of paper. It was easy enough to imagine powerful cabals conspiring behind the scenes to manipulate the market in paper.

How can we be sure that something is actually worth its face value—that it actually is what it proclaims itself to be? This is the basic question, and it's a good question around which to build a mystery.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Souvenir of the Ancient World

Last night's Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert began with Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess, featuring one of the most beautiful and haunting horn solos ever written, and ended with a small chamber music work, Beethoven's "Ghost" trio, op. 70, no. 1, for violin, cello, and piano. The ghostly theme was sustained in the middle of the concert with a new commissioned piece by Minnesota-born jazz composer Maria Schneider based on poems by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, including a setting of his poem "The Dead in Frock Coats." The soprano was Dawn Upshaw.

Maria Schneider recently won a Grammy award for best jazz instrumental composition. Her music was interesting and accessible, and I found one of her Drummond de Andrade settings, "Souvenir of the Ancient World," especially lovely.

According to poet and translator Mark Strand, Drummond's poems "are, for the most part, bittersweet evocations of a small-town childhood or, more emblematically, remorseful accounts of a lost world." The poems, Strand writes, "concern themselves with the ubiquity of loss." In 2006, on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the fifth anniversary of 9/11, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky chose "Souvenir of the Ancient World" as the poem that best helped him make sense of those disasters. Pinsky wrote: "The time before a disaster can come to feel like a lost innocence. Losing the unconscious assumption of safety is a minor, persisting echo of the greater, actual loss." Drummond's poem, quite beautifully and sensitively, evokes the everyday anxieties ("missing the eleven o'clock trolley") that are dwarfed by real disaster. Maria Schneider's music perfectly accented the poem's lovely balance of brightness and wistfulness. And, of course, Dawn Upshaw's singing was as beautiful as can be.

The first half of the SPCO program was rounded out by Maurice Delage's exotic Four Hindu Poems and twelve-tone composer Anton Webern's odd dissection of the Ricercare from Bach's The Musical Offering.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Rough Draft Tumblr

I've added a Tumblr feed to the right sidebar. The Rough Draft Tumblr will be a collection of snippets from other blogs, quotations, updates, brief observations and asides, and other odds and ends that don't add up to a complete blog post. Watch the feed for updates, or check out the complete Rough Draft Tumblr.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Reading Journal: "Millenium Hall"

Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall. Originally published in 1762. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics, 1986.

In 1762, Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia, Rousseau published The Social Contract, and Sarah Scott published her unusual novel Millenium Hall, about a utopian community of women. The novel, like many eighteenth-century English novels, serves a didactic purpose: to illustrate the rewards of feminine virtue, and to envision a society in which the precepts of Christianity—as understood by genteel English ladies—are diligently carried into practice.

The novel begins when a carriage carrying two gentlemen breaks down on the road, and the gentlemen are received at Millenium Hall—where the older gentleman's cousin, Mrs. Maynard, happens to be a resident. A description of Millenium Hall, including details of its many charitable projects in the surrounding area, forms a frame for the stories Mrs. Maynard tells about the women who inhabit the hall. The younger gentleman, who is amiable but of unsteady character, becomes the novel's ideal audience: a man who, through exposure to Millenium Hall, comes to take more seriously his duties as a Christian.

All of the inhabitants of Millenium Hall whose stories are told—Miss Mancel and Mrs. Morgan, Lady Mary Jones, Miss Selvyn, and Miss Trentham—are models of chastity and virtue, and have maintained their virtue through numerous trials and temptations. In significant ways, their stories are autobiographical. Miss Selvyn, for example, was raised by a kindly and scholarly old gentleman who filled the role of a parent—undoubtedly reflecting Sarah Scott's own childhood, when the place of her distant and disengaged parents was filled by her maternal grandfather, the classical scholar Conyers Middleton. Mrs. Morgan, like Sarah Scott, married unhappily, and both women eventually found happiness with a female companion—Mrs. Morgan with Miss Mancel, Sarah Scott with Lady Barbara Montagu. After Sarah Scott left her husband in 1752—after only a year of marriage—she and Lady Bab settled in Bath, and established various charities for poor women in the area—again like the women of Millenium Hall.

Another undoubted influence on the novel was Sarah Scott's sister, Elizabeth Montagu (no direct relation to Lady Bab), who in about 1750 began to host gatherings of what became known as the Blue Stocking Society, a women's literary salon that gathered members like Frances Burney and Sarah Fielding (and a few men like Sir Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson) for intellectual conversation. The ideals of the "bluestockings" are reflected in Sarah Scott's novel, which represents the superiority of polite intellectual conversation to card playing as a social pastime for women.

The women of Millenium Hall, though independent, are not liberated from eighteenth-century ideals of Christian womanhood. They are embodiments of the virtue of self-sacrifice, always placing their duty to God and society before their personal happiness and self-fulfillment. One character conceives a child out of wedlock; she (elliptically, in Scott's polite narration) sleeps with her fiancé shortly before their marriage, and then refuses to proceed with the marriage because she believes her lack of self-control has caused her to lose the full respect of her fiancé. Although he loves her and pleads with her, she persists in punishing herself for her moral lapse, and denies herself the happiness of marriage with a man she loves and the companionship of the daughter she gives to another couple to raise as their own.

The morality of these women is relentless. But in making character and conduct central to the novel's drama, Scott stands at the head of a female novelistic tradition that runs through Jane Austen and George Eliot and down through Kate O'Brien and other women novelists of the twentieth century. In Ruth Adam's I'm Not Complaining (1938), an unwed mother has an abortion—something that would have been unthinkable for the unwed mother in Millenium Hall. But the two women stand as part of a continuum—both of them attempting, within the constraints of their society, to take control of their own lives, their own bodies, and their own difficult moral choices.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The South Sea Bubble

The South Sea Bubble (share prices in the South Sea Company, 1719-1721).

The stock market just finished its worst week in history, starting the week at 10,325 and ending at 8,451. In the course of the week, General Motors shares dropped 21%, falling to their lowest level since 1950. In the midst of mounting panic on Wall Street, here on "Main Street" I was on the lookout for some historical perspective. As this New York Times graphic shows, the current downturn is comparable to the bear market in 1974, and is beginning to look distressingly like the sustained downturn of 1929-1932. But the depressing history of market crashes really begins in 1720, with the infamous "South Sea Bubble."

In 1711, England's debts were mounting as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession (known in America as "Queen Anne's War," the second of the "French and Indian Wars"). The war was being fought to prevent a French claimant from assuming the vacant throne of Spain, thereby consolidating a Franco-Spanish empire in the New World that would tip the balance of power in Europe and seriously derail England's own imperial ambitions. In London, Lord Treasurer Robert Harley, anticipating a windfall in South American trade with the successful conclusion of the war, set up the South Sea Company with exclusive trading rights in South America.

At its inception, the South Sea Company bought up £10 million in short term government debt in exchange for stock in the company at 6% interest—then waited for profits from South American trade to start rolling in. The most reliable profits were generated by the slave trade, but hostility between Britain and Spain remained a significant barrier to trade in general.

In 1719, the Company purchased another £31 million in government debt (nearly half the total), touching off a frenzy of speculation that steadily pushed up share prices. Over four hundred members of the House of Commons and half the members of the House of Lords were shareholders, along with notables like Alexander Pope and Sir Isaac Newton. Government officials realized huge profits on insider deals as the price of a share rose from £128 in January 1720 to £1,000 in early August 1720.

Then, as investors scrambled for liquidity to purchase still more shares, a frenzied sell-off began that saw the price per share drop to £150 by the end of September. Massive fortunes were made and lost in a single year. One market loser, Alexander Pope, vented his frustration and anger in a poem:
How goes the Stock, becomes the gen'ral Cry.
Rather than fail we'll at Nine Hundred Buy.
Instead of Scandal, how goes Stock's the Tone,
Ev'n Wit and Beauty are quite useless grown:
No Ships unload, no Looms at Work we see,
But all are swallow'd by the damn'd South Sea.
Sir Isaac Newton, who lost £20,000 when the market collapsed, commented ruefully: "I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Walk in the Woods

Big Woods State Park, Nerstrand, Minnesota. Saturday, October 11, 2008.





click on last photo to see detail of wasp's nest

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Wealth of Nations

I thought that this time of global financial crisis would be a good time to read Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and learn for myself about the Invisible Hand of the market. It's a book that, like the Bible, is often cited and little read, and like the Bible, I suspect that it's often misread and misapplied.

In the beginning, I found Smith's prose surprisingly simple and lucid. He explains the division of labor, which allows workers to exchange the products of their labor for the products of other workers' labor. The blacksmith takes his keg of nails to the brewer and exchanges it for a keg of beer. In a cash economy, he sells his nails for a certain amount of minted silver, and then exchanges the silver for the keg of beer. The principle is simple. As Smith says, "every man lives thus by exchanging." And the ultimate value of goods in exchange (what Smith calls the "real price") is the human labor that went into producing those goods.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, the further Smith moves from simple exchanges—the product of my labor for the product of yours—the harder he is to follow. The economy becomes increasingly abstract. An exchange involving a keg of nails and a keg of beer is concrete, but things like stock and credit are almost platonic ideas that seem far removed from concrete things like nails and beer.

The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Fourteen years earlier, in 1762, Adam Smith was lecturing and beginning to develop his ideas on political economy. In that year, a series of his lectures on rhetoric were published that begin with his thoughts on the origin of language:
It seems probable that those words which denote certain substances which exist, and which we call substantives, would be amongst the first contrived by persons who were inventing a language. Two Savages who met together and took up their dwelling in the same place would very soon endeavour to get signs to denote those objects which most frequently occurred and with which they were most concerned. The cave they lodged in, the tree from whence they got their food, or the fountain from whence they drank, would all soon be distinguished by particular names, as they would have frequent occasion to make their thoughts about these known to one another, and would by mutual consent agree on certain signs whereby this might be accomplished.
Language is, like money, an instrument of exchange that floats free of the thing it represents. Instead of pointing out an actual tree, the cave-dweller can use the mutually agreed-upon word for "tree." The cave-dweller's descendant, instead of trading one tree for another, can purchase a tree with a piece of silver. Words and money are instruments of exchange (although when we exchange words, we call it communication) representing concrete things in the real world.

Adam Smith famously asserted that human beings, at least in their economic transactions, act not out of humanity or benevolence, but out of self-interest. He wrote: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." This is, I suspect, no more than a realistic assessment of human nature and human motivation.

In 1762, the same year that Smith's lectures on rhetoric were published, Sarah Scott published her now nearly forgotten novel Millenium Hall, about a group of gentlewomen who establish a utopian community in a Cornish country house. Unlike the homo economicus that Adam Smith describes, the ladies of Millenium Hall are motivated entirely by considerations of humanity and benevolence. Their utopian economy is based upon the principle of a "reciprocal communication of benefits," of "continually endeavouring to serve and oblige each other." The women of Millenium Hall believe that it is better to give than to receive, and that the receiver confers a benefit to the giver by gratifying her impulse toward benevolence and generosity.

This is interesting to me because in Sophocles' Antigone, which I'm reading with my students at Carleton, Creon and Antigone have opposing views of what constitutes a "benefit" (in Greek, kerdos). Creon thinks of benefit in mercenary terms; he accuses the Guard who reports the illegal burial of Polyneices' corpse of attempting benefit from a bribe, a piece of silver in exchange for cooperation. In Creon's economy, benefits are bought and sold, and even loyalty has a monetary value. Antigone, on the other hand, says that even death will be a benefit (kerdos) if it's the price she pays for fulfilling her obligation to her brother. She thinks in terms of concrete personal relationships, he thinks in terms of abstract economic transactions.

Unfortunately, Antigone did go to her death for her sense of personal obligation, and Sarah Scott's Millenium Hall remained a utopian fantasy. Meanwhile, Adam Smith's Invisible Hand continues to direct much of our economic life through the influence of his modern disciples like Milton Friedman, who championed privatization and deregulation and inspired the economic policies of Ronald Reagan.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Beautiful Governess

Illustration from an interesting PBS page on Victorian governesses.

In Sarah Scott's remarkable eighteenth-century novel about a women's utopia, Millenium Hall (1762), we are told the story of Miss Louisa Mancel, who has been given an excellent education and then left destitute by the death of her guardian, who died intestate. Miss Mancel is fifteen years old, and astonishingly beautiful. Because of her now precarious position, one of her friends plans "to establish her in some widow's family, as governess to her children." Her friend explains to her why it must be a widow's family: "she must not expect, while her person continued such as it then was, that a married woman would receive her in any capacity that fixed her in the same house with her husband." Because Miss Mancel is so beautiful, she cannot be placed in a position where she might be a temptation to errant husbands.

This is the second time I've come across the theme of the beautiful governess in my reading this year. In Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle (1936), Mary travels from Ireland to Spain to become the governess of a wealthy Spanish family. There is some consternation in the family when Miss Lavelle turns out to be, not a plain spinster, but a beautiful young woman. There is concern that Mary, as chaperone, will outshine the family's eldest daughter, who is about to make her début. Then there are Mother and Father, as daughters Pilár, Nieves, and Milagros realize:
"What does mother think of her, do you imagine?" Pilár was still worrying.

"Annoyed, very likely; but—well, a lot of money has been spent in fetching her here and perhaps her looking as she does won't matter much for the next twelve months—" Nieves shrugged in friendly imitation of their mother. "Father hasn't seen her yet," she added.

"He never will see her," said Milagros.
In O'Brien's The Ante-Room, which I recently finished reading, the danger comes from a lovely young nurse, attending the dying mother, who has designs on the unmarried son and heir.

It would be interesting to trace this literary motif of the beautiful governess—the dangerous unmarried woman in the house—especially because the situation is so famously reversed in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. In Brontë's novel, the husband falls in love with the plain governess, and the danger to the household comes from the beautiful (but insane) wife.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Reading Journal: "The Ante-Room"

Kate O'Brien. The Ante-Room. Virago Modern Classics. 1989. Originally published in 1934. Thanks to Patricia, who sent me a copy of the novel all the way from New South Wales.

Kate O'Brien's The Ante-Room is her second published novel, but the third of her novels that I have read, and although I found that it fell short of the expectations raised by Mary Lavelle (1936) and the nearly perfect The Land of Spices (1941), it did nothing to dim my appreciation of Kate O'Brien's art. The story, set in rural Ireland in 1880, is simple: while her mother lies dying of cancer, young Agnes Mulqueen struggles with her own love for her sister's husband. Agnes is a devout, conscientious Catholic—she takes seriously both the demands and the consolations of her religion. She is also loyal to her bourgeois family. The rewards and constraints of these loyalties—to church and family—are important recurring themes in O'Brien's novels.

Agnes Mulqueen is a fine and sympathetic character, with a complex and well-drawn inner life. Unfortunately, the people she loves most—her sister and her brother-in-law—are less appealing. Agnes seems foolish to love Vincent—her sulky brother-in-law—when she's being courted by sensible and appealing Dr. Curran. And the end of the novel is, unfortunately, overly melodramatic.

But Kate O'Brien's abiding greatness as a novelist lies in her belief that the novel can be "the instrument 'of an active and unblinking conscience.'"[1] She takes issues of morality, of conscience, and of religion seriously, and the drama of the novel lies in the working out of moral dilemmas—of adjusting outward life to inward belief, and vice versa. In an essay on George Eliot, Kate O'Brien could have been appraising her own art when she said:
[S]he was always primarily concerned for the moral development of her characters whilst being able to expose their dilemmas with the purest possible detachment, yet tenderly. The right and wrong of each heart—its own right and wrong—was her quarry; and she would spare no trouble to catch up with it, and study it calmly in relation to its place and nature.[2]
O'Brien's novels are filled with cold and detached characters who are burned—and sometimes warmed and illuminated—by contact with human passion and human frailty. The Catholic faith, for O'Brien's characters, can be immensely consoling and reassuring, but it can also be like a frost to human sensibilities. When her confessor assures her that human love will die, leaving only the love of God, Agnes finds this both consoling and devastating.

As Agnes sits in church and prepares herself for confession, O'Brien remarks on her coldness:
So, resolutely cold and still, resolutely contemplating, for its effect of levelling the ego, the beautiful pattern of the Benediction, she took her place in that pattern, and refused herself to agitation. She was not herself. She was, much more fortunately, part of a formula. What was required of her was to be accurate in moving with that formula. Accurate, regular and cold. So conforming she would reach her own small objective, which was a part of the whole, and thus important.
But, as humans do, Agnes finds it difficult to remain so quiescently frozen in her faith.

[1] [2] Kate O'Brien, quoted in Adele M. Dalsimer, Kate O'Brien (Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1990), 23.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Brief Reviews

Since classes started, I haven't been able to post and book or CD reviews. This doesn't mean I haven't been reading or listening. Last week, I finished reading Louis de Bernières' magnificent 1996 novel, Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The novel is set on the Greek island of Cephallonia. Most of the novel takes place during World War II, when Greece was occupied by German and Italian forces. One of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, Carlo Guercio, is an Italian solider who delivers what could be the epigraph for the entire novel: "I know that the Duce has made it clear that the Italian campaign was a resounding victory for Italy. But he was not there. He does not know what happened. He does not know that the ultimate truth of history ought to consist only of the anecdotes of the little people who were caught up in it." Among those caught up in it are wonderful old Dr. Iannis and his beautiful daughter Pelagia, who stands at the center of this beautiful story of love, loyalty, and music. The novel is lyrical and satirical at the same time, exploring the pain and beauty of ordinary lives amidst the relentless forces of history and ideology.

Meanwhile, the latest addition to the music library is the latest disc from Kate Rusby, Awkward Annie. It's a beautiful, melancholy CD of contemporary and traditional English folk music, with sensitive instrumental playing and Kate Rusby's lovely, Yorkshire-accented voice. Wonderful from beginning to end. For me, the highlights are the bittersweet "John Barbury," with gorgeous piano and strings, followed by the more upbeat "High on a Hill" (with a great banjo part and perfect harmony vocals by Chris Thile of Nickel Creek). Perfect music for curling up with a cup of Yorkshire tea on a cool October afternoon. The disc includes a bonus track: a cover of The Kinks' "The Village Green Preservation Society." Highly recommended.

Finally, it's also been a month of great live music. The concert season opened on September 12, when Clara and I drove up to St. Paul for our first Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert. Since then, there's been a free concert each weekend at Carleton. Last weekend, in addition to the SPCO concert at Skinner Chapel, there was an organ recital by college organist Lawrence Archbold, the high point of which was the magnificent Ciacona in F minor by Johann Pachelbel. Last night, there was a piano recital by Nicola Melville, with guest clarinetist Jun Quian, from St. Olaf, performing Brahms' Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, no. 1. Melville also played music by Debussy, Messiaen, Granados, and a wonderful new piano piece by Carleton composer Alex Freeman called "Night on the Prairies."

Tonight we're joining friends for dinner and a concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Orchestra is performing some old favorites: Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 3, Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, and Brahms' First Symphony. Finally, next Friday, October 10, it's the SPCO again at the Ordway, where we'll get to hear their take on the third Brandenburg.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Vice President

One of the more interesting, and potentially frightening, moments in last night's Vice Presidential debate came when Gov. Palin responded to a question about the power of the Vice Presidency and its limits. She said: "I'm thankful the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the Vice President if that Vice President so chose to exert it in working with the Senate and making sure we are supportive of the President's policies..."

Sen. Biden countered forcefully that Dick Cheney, who has espoused this view of expanded Vice Presidential powers, has been "the most dangerous Vice President" in American history.

The Constitution says very little about the office of the Vice President. He or she receives and announces to the Senate the votes of the electoral college (Article II, section 1, paragraph 3; 12th amendment); he or she has a tie-breaking vote in the Senate (Article I, section 3, paragraph 4); he or she assumes the Presidency should the President be removed from office, die, resign, or be unable to fulfill his duties (Article II, section 1, paragraph 6).

The confusion comes from the fact that the V.P., as President of the Senate, has duties both under Article I of the Constitution (covering the legislative branch) and under Article II (covering the executive branch).

The Framers of the Constitution did see this as a potential problem, and some delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted the Senate to elect one of its own members as a presiding officer. Alexander Hamilton (Federalist no. 68) justified placing the V.P. in the position of President of the Senate like this: "[T]o secure at all times the possibility of a definite resolution of the body, it is necessary that the president [of the Senate] should have only a casting vote [i.e., a tie-breaking vote]. And to take the senator of any state from his seat as senator, to place him in that of president of the senate, would be to exchange, in regard to the state from which he came, a constant for a contingent vote."

The problem was logistical. If, for example, a Senator from New York is chosen by his peers as President of the Senate, his vote becomes contingent (exercised only in the event of a tie) rather than constant (exercised in all circumstances). Someone needed to have a tie-breaking vote, so the Framers gave it to the Vice President. But the Constitution is clear: the Vice President's only legislative function is the casting of a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

The more important Constitutional principle is that of "separation of powers"—the clear constitutional demarcation between the powers of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Of the separation of powers, James Madison, in Federalist no. 47, says: "No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value, or is stamped with the authority of more enlightened patrons of liberty..." And he continues: "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, or a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

During the debates on the Constitution in 1787, George Mason called the Vice Presidency "a dangerous and useless office." What we have seen over the past eight years, under Bush and Cheney, has been a dangerous trend toward the accumulation of powers. Gov. Palin would like to continue that dangerous trend, one that undermines the constitutional foundations of our liberty.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Out of the Blue

Through the globe-spanning magic of the blogosphere, my Margaret Evans Huntington Club paper, "Out-of-Body Experiences," has reached New Zealand novelist Mary McCallum, who discusses it on her blog O Audacious Book.

McCallum writes: "Rob Hardy's paper echoes [Mister Pip author] Lloyd Jones' belief that novels aren't about escape from life but about learning how to live in this world..." And she concludes: "It's another whole discussion as to why writing that is deeply domestic doesn't figure much on the literature geiger counter, but good on Rob Hardy for letting it figure on his, and encouraging others to do the same."

Another New Zealand novelist, Rachael King (author of The Sound of Butterflies) has also blogged about the scarcity of men who read novels by women—or, in fact, any novels at all. In the comments section, someone posted a link to Esquire's list of "The 75 Books Every Man Should Read" (caution: in an irritating slideshow format, with advertisements liberally interspersed). The list includes only one novel by a woman, Flannery O'Connor's collection of stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Mary McCallum is the author of the novel The Blue, published in New Zealand in 2007. I hope her novel will eventually become available here in America.

Early October Prairie

The brown of the tall grass dominates the prairie at this season, but there are patches of asters (heath aster, aster ericoides?) that lie white on the land like a premonition of frost.


After my noon hour walk in the Lower Arboretum, I rode my bike up to campus and locked it up, as I occasionally do, in front of Mudd, the science building that houses the geology department. Outside, under a great old bur oak and some pines, is this marvelous slab of sandstone that preserves ripple marks from the waves of an ancient sea.

Public Poetry at the Northfield Public Library

In early August, the director of the Northfield Public Library, Teresa Jensen, asked me to write a poem to be displayed prominently in the...